Summer of '89
In one of my Forrest Gump moments, I spent much of the summer of 1989 travelling around the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany) as part of a Bach festival that performed in all the churches that J.S. Bach had worked in during his lifetime.
It was a very strange time, indeed. The wall was still up and we were among the first Americans that had been officially allowed to spend much time in some of the small towns. To a certain extent we were cultural oddities and celebrities in these places that had not seen much change since the end of WWII. People came to our concerts not just to hear us sing but to gawk, practice their English, ask silly questions, hit us up for dates (seriously), and try to barter with us for American or West German currency.
We had an official state "tour guide" courtesy of the government who was very careful about monitoring who we came into contact with and how we spent our money. There were no overt restrictions placed on us, but it was clear that the locals knew where the lines in the sand were drawn. One evening, a couple of us started tossing a football around in the very empty town square only to have about two dozen teenagers come out of the woodwork to check us out. While we were teaching them the finer points of throwing a spiral, one of them noticed a police car coming and all of them instantly disappeared into the alleys and side streets.
My 21st Birthday celebration took place on the roof of a tiny hotel in Arnstadt knocking back smuggled Russian vodka with the son of the local church organist and a couple of fellow American performers. Strange days.
We also toured both east and west Berlin. The back side of the Riechstag still was pocked marked from the bullets of WWII. We were told that while the building may have been on the west side of the wall, the east side, facing the wall, was intentionally left scarred to symbolize that one quarter of Germany was still in distress.
One side of the wall was an incredibly cosmopolitan city with phenomenal culture and a vibrancy that is a unique as it was German. The other side of the wall was gray and restrained. The areas that were meant for foreign (my) eyes were sterile and deserted. The Unter den Linden was pristine but only a in a postcard kind of way. The concrete wall and guard towers did far more than divide people. It was the difference between a color television and an old black and white set.
That summer, Hungary had opened its border to West Germany and the buzz on both sides of the wall was how many East Germans were "vacationing" in Budapest and then heading into West Germany, which had a policy of allowing all refugees from the east to enter. Nobody thought it was anything more than a headache that would soon be rectified by not-so-subtle negotiations.
Exactly 20 years ago tonight I was walking by a television in my house at the University of Michigan. Out of the corner of my eye I saw people dancing on the very wall, the same exact spot in fact, that I had just visited 90 days before. I spent the rest of the night glued to the TV watching special reports of people sledging the wall with hammers and passing bottles from West to East.
I can honestly say that I am one of the last Westerners to see the cold war version of East Germany. It took several years to understand my witness to a sliver of a much bigger history. As I said, Forrest Gump.